While Detroit flaunts its own incredible entertainment and historical attractions, several nearby destinations are perfect for a day trip, offering parks, beaches, and small-town charm. Just be sure to avoid morning and evening rush-hour traffic when leaving Detroit, and consider using public transportation where available to make the trip a breeze.
Ann Arbor: Eclectic, Artsy College Town
Yes, there is fun beyond college football in Ann Arbor, aka the home of the University of Michigan. Spend time on campus to enjoy the free-admission museums—the 94,000-square-foot University of Michigan Museum of Art, which houses works by Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet, and the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, where you can attend shows in the planetarium and dome theater for a fee.
In the town of Ann Arbor, ethnic and farm-to-table dining are plentiful, including Zingerman’s artisan empires (Next Door Café for cupcakes and chai or dinner at the James Beard Award-winning Zingerman’s Roadhouse), Detroit Street Filling Station, Jerusalem Garden for Palestinian food, or Tomukun for Korean BBQ.
Getting There: By car, the trip to Ann Arbor is between 45 and 60 minutes (each way). You can also take the 261 SMART bus westbound to Detroit’s Metro Airport McNamara Terminal East Lansing, then the Michigan Flyer to Ann Arbor (around 1 hour, 45 minutes).
Travel Tip: To avoid crowds, skip Saturdays that have home football games scheduled.
Birmingham: Small Town With a Big-City Vibe
Birmingham’s 20,000 residents are blessed with access to 20 parks, plus the 18-acre Douglas Evans Nature Preserve (technically in nearby Beverly Hills). As one of Michigan’s most affluent towns, there’s an abundance of shopping, including five antique stores, on-trend women’s clothing and accessories (plus housewares) at Lori Karbal, and whimsical gifts with local roots at Suhm-thing. Dining is top-notch, and this community loves its wine bars, from Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro (wine, oysters, and more) to Vinotecca. The Birmingham Historical Museum & Park—a collection of historic buildings that includes the 1822 John West Hunter House (named for the city’s first permanent resident)—celebrates its 18th year in 2019, open Wednesday through Saturday afternoons. Permanent exhibits include a darling 1920s-era kitchen in the 1928 Allen House.
Getting There: SMART bus 461 travels northbound to Birmingham every 15 minutes, for a 45-minute trip (one-way). Or travel by car for the 30-minute journey.
Travel Tip: Check this Birmingham website for news of fun events, like Santa Walks to seasonal farmers markets.
Lansing: Free Attractions in the State Capital
You’ve probably heard of the Broad Museum in L.A. But did you know its founders (Eli and Edythe Broad) are linked to another art museum in Lansing, a town with just 117,000 residents? The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum—a result of the Broads’ $28 million donation—opened in 2012 in nearby East Lansing, at Michigan State University. It’s designed by the acclaimed late architect Zaha Hadid and also includes a sculpture garden.
In addition to art, you can tour the capitol building, either self-guided or escorted (these tend to fill up so go for the on-your-own option). The building is open every day except Sunday.
Getting There: From Detroit’s Metro Airport McNamara Terminal, hop on the Michigan Flyer to East Lansing, a 3.5-hour trip (one-way). By car, the trip will take about 90 minutes.
Travel Tip: Few universities make their own ice cream, but fortunately Michigan State University is one—drop by the MSU Dairy Store for a scoop.
South Haven: Michigan’s Nantucket
Weekends during summer is when South Haven hits its stride, welcoming Chicagoans to their second homes and vacationers from around the Midwest. Hugging Lake Michigan on its western edge, this has been a resort town since the early 1900s. (This is important to know: it’s not the luxe Hamptons, more like New York’s laid-back cousin.) The beaches here are stunning and not as populated as you’d think, though North Beach attracts locals during summer and has its own concession stand.
No matter what time of year, dine at Clementine’s in downtown South Haven, tucked into a former bank adored with red stone and red brick; and sip wine at 12 Corners tasting room (wine is crafted from Michigan-grown grapes).
Getting There: It’s only a three-hour car trip from Detroit, but nearly impossible to reach via public transit for a day trip as you’d need to transfer in Chicago or commit to six hours each way.
Travel Tip: If you can travel here during fall, do it, because harvest is in full swing (pumpkin farms, apple farms, and more).
Frankenmuth: A Taste of Germany
As you drive into Frankenmuth, the Germanic architecture might make you feel as though you’ve pulled into Little Germany. Treat your palate to the precise foods one might enjoy in Bavaria, Germany, such as schnitzel and sauerbrauten. Shop for German trinkets (from traditional clothes like dirndl dresses for women to tasty lebkuchen cookies) at Bavarian Specialties.
For a Michigan twist—and if you’ve tired of clutching a beer stein—go wine tasting at St. Julian Winery (based in Paw Paw, it’s Michigan’s longest-running winery) or Prost Wine Bar & Charcuterie. And it’s never too early to buy holiday gifts and decorations, right? Drop by the world’s largest Christmas Store, Bronner’s (the size of two football fields) before departing Frankenmuth.
Getting There: By car, it’s a 90-minute one-way trek from Detroit. Unfortunately, public transportation does not service this route.
Travel Tip: Forgo a burger or other “ordinary” food for Frankenmuth-style chicken (basically fried and golden). A favorite spot is at Zehnder’s Restaurant for its all-you-can-eat chicken, which also features side dishes with each meal.
Windsor: A Trip Into Canada
Located on the south bank of the Detroit River, the Canadian city of Windsor boasts a large waterfront park that stretches for about three miles and includes the Windsor Sculpture Park (featuring 35 works). If it’s a nice day, bike along the five-mile Roy A. Battagello River Walk Bike Trail. During inclement weather, you can still appreciate art via a visit to the Art Gallery of Windsor, where much of the collection focuses on Canadian art.
Getting There: The 1.8-mile trip by car across the Ambassador Bridge takes about 10 minutes from downtown Detroit. Public transportation is not available.
Travel Tip: The Ambassador Bridge border crossing is the busiest crossing on the border, so be sure to allow enough time to cross.
Grand Rapids: Craft Beer
A major hub in West Michigan, Grand Rapids has about 200,000 residents. While it flaunts cultural attractions like the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park (home to Auguste Rodin sculptures), the Grand Rapids Art Museum (world’s first LEED Gold-certified museum), and Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum, in recent years, people come here to try the beer.
Download this handy map of 43 stops along the Grand Rapids Beer City Trail including breweries and bars offering a nice selection of taps. If you can get eight stamps in the passport, then you’ve earned yourself a T-shirt. Brewery Vivant is a popular destination as the brewery’s farmhouse ales are brewed and sampled within a former funeral home (also the world’s first LEED-certified microbrewery).
Getting There: Budget two hours and 30 minutes to get there by car, or give yourself some reading time on a Greyhound bus and Amtrak ride (this runs a little over four hours each way).
Travel Tip: Save money by buying the three-day Culture Pass ($24), granting you admission to seven museums.
Flint: Budding Agritourism
Everything you’ve probably heard about Flint is negative (water crisis and fallout from auto-plant closures), but that’s exactly why you need to visit and see the great parts of the city. Michigan’s seventh largest city features museums and other cultural attractions, many tied to the land.
At Applewood—a 34-acre gentleman’s farm dating back to 1916—you can tour the orchard, historic home, and landscaping once home to the Charles Stewart Mott family. The 500-acre Almar Orchards & Cidery in nearby Flushing operates a year-round farm store selling hard and alcohol-free ciders, apples (when in season) and vinegars.
Getting There: The 1485 Indian Trails bus from Detroit reaches Flint in just under two hours. By car, it’s an hour and 20 minutes each way.
Travel Tip: Pack comfortable walking shoes to take in the downtown architecture, especially during the Flint Artwalk on the second Friday of every month.
Dearborn: Spotlight on Arab Culture
This city of 100,000 people is home to a vibrant Middle Eastern community you probably won’t find the likes of anywhere else in the U.S. About 30 percent of residents are Arab American and when you factor in the entire Detroit metro area, this is home to the largest concentration of Arab Americans. To showcase their culture and pride, in 2005, the Arab American National Museum (a Smithsonian affiliate) opened here, as the world’s first museum devoted to Arab American history. Tours of the Islamic Center of America (a Shia mosque that’s the country’s oldest) are offered if booked in advance. The current building debuted in 2005, the same year as the museum, and is a wonderful exterior photo opportunity even if you don’t get inside.
Naturally, with these kinds of roots, eating delicious Middle Eastern food is not difficult. Try the family-run Al-Ameer (plenty of vegetarian options) or the super-casual Dearborn Meat Market, which is also a butcher shop and prepares dine-in meat dishes to order.
Getting There: Board the 200 westbound SMART bus from Detroit for a quick 20-minute ride to Dearborn. By car, budget between 15 and 20 minutes for the trip.
Travel Tip: Every August is the three-day Dearborn Homecoming at Ford Field Park. Unless you’re interested in the festival, this isn’t the best time to visit Dearborn because it attracts 150,000 people to the city.
Toledo: Toledo’s Renaissance
Ohio’s most northern city is undergoing a renaissance, deepening its wealth of cultural attractions. You’ll especially notice this in the downtown area, with a dedicated website capturing all the new shops, entertainment, and restaurants (among the 80-some eateries is the two-year-old Brim House with chef’s-tasting dinners, chicken lollipops and wagyu).
Curious why it’s called Glass City? Toledo has long been a leading industrial area for glass production not just in the U.S. but worldwide. The Toledo Museum of Art’s Glass Pavilion (added in 2006) displays some of this exquisite glasswork in the museum’s collection. Classes in glassblowing are offered on occasion; check this calendar of events.
Getting There: It only takes about an hour to drive to Toledo. Or it’s a direct line on Greyhound for an hour and 45 minutes.
Travel Tip: Head to the Downtown Outdoor Refreshment Area where you can drink alcohol bought at local establishments.
Holland: Dutch Culture
This cute town six miles in from Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline was settled by—you guessed it!—the Dutch. What this means is that tulips flourish in Holland each spring, and there’s a 250-year-old Dutch windmill (on Windmill Island) towering 125 feet into the air. To learn more about the town’s rich history, drop by the Settlers House Museum.
Downtown Holland is adorable, with Victorian architecture and many small businesses that include Holland Clock Company (retailer for Dutch and German coo-coo clocks in this location since 2014) and Urban Found (jewelry and clothing). Alpenrose is a Euro-style restaurant with fondue and spatzle dumplings on the menu. On Thursdays during the summer months, there are street performers in the evenings.
Getting There: The easiest and fastest way to reach Holland from Detroit is by driving. It takes around 2.5 hours traveling westbound on I-96. Public transportation isn’t an option unless you switch Greyhound buses in Chicago, adding a few more hours onto the trip.
Travel Tip: Unless you want to fight the crowds, don’t travel to Holland during its annual Tulip Festival in early May. About 500,000 people flock to the city during this time.
Bay City: Antique Shopping
Hugging one of the Great Lakes (Lake Huron, along Saginaw Bay), Bay City is home to 35,000 residents. There’s shopping—including Michigan’s largest antiques center, the 60,000-square-foot Bay City Antiques Center, which spans an entire city block—along with locally inspired and Michigan-grown bites at City Market. You’ll find everything from coffee to pasture-raised chicken here, even a winery’s tasting room and barbecue, too, with several bake shops to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Getting There: From Detroit, it’s about a two-hour drive to Bay City. And while it takes a bit longer, taking public transportation between the two cities is a breeze: just hop on the 1485 Indian Trails bus (3.5 hours one way).
Travel Tip: Sundays in the City (every Sunday in December) is a charming event, with holiday films at the historic State Theatre and free horse-drawn carriage rides.